This has been a busy law-and-religion news week in the United States, but there was a major story at the European Court of Human Rights as well. On Wednesday, the Grand Chamber heard argument in Fernández Martínez v. Spain, a case that could have major implications for church autonomy in Europe.
Under the 1979 Concordat between Spain and the Holy See, public schools in Spain must offer optional classes in Catholicism. The instructors are public employees, but must be approved by local bishops. In Fernández Martínez, a public school refused to renew the contract of one such teacher, a married, laicized priest named José Fernández Martínez, after the local bishop voiced his objections. The bishop argued that Fernández Martínez had “given scandal,” an offense under canon law, by allowing himself to be photographed by a newspaper, along with his family, at a meeting of a group calling for optional priestly celibacy. Fernández Martínez claimed that the dismissal violated his rights to privacy, family life, and expression, but the Spanish Constitutional Court and, last May, a chamber of the ECtHR, disagreed. He then sought review in the Grand Chamber.
Wednesday’s hearing was interesting and, at times, fiery. The government presented the case as a straightforward matter of religious autonomy and state neutrality. The bishop had objected to Fernández Martínez on religious grounds, it explained; given the terms of the Concordat, the government had no choice but to defer. The government surely could not second-guess the bishop’s conclusion that someone charged with teaching Catholicism had violated religious law. The government emphasized that the Church did not have Read more